Somewhere in One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez observes that the house of the Buendía family had gone unrepaired for a century; it was understandably unready to withstand the storm that would destroy both the house and the whole decaying town of Macondo.
Seeing the cathedral of Notre Dame burning — on Twitter — was a reminder of the consequences of neglect. We have suddenly learned that the great cathedral, centuries in the building, had been allowed to decay until Victor Hugo wrote The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Tourists suddenly flocked to see the old dump, and the authorities patched together some repairs. That kept it going until the 1920s, when more slapdash maintenance kept it standing while bringing in the tourists.
The fire itself, we also learn, was likely the result of belated and insufficient maintenance. Something caught fire, and wood almost a thousand years old turned to smoke and ashes.
Even to unbelievers, it was a shock. Easier to imagine the Eiffel Tower collapsing in a cloud of rust than to lose a magnificent work of medieval imagination, art and engineering. But like a death in the family, the loss of Notre Dame resonates on many levels across the world.
Most obviously, it reminds us that building is easy and maintenance is hard, boring, expensive, and therefore politically unexciting. No one wanted to pay for the repairs and maintenance of Notre Dame, any more than we want to pay for fixing the leaky roof in the local elementary school (much less pay for the teachers’ aides). No one ever re-elected a politician because she raised taxes to pay for upgrading schools’ computer software.
Similarly, no country wants to accept the costs and potential retaliation involved in punishing the Japanese for resuming the whale hunt, or shutting down Alberta’s oil sands. We’d rather wait, like the Buendía family, for the storm that destroys us all, if we can just make a few more pesos before the evil day.
More immediately, we have just suffered a self-inflicted equivalent to 9/11, and reminded psychopaths around the world of the power of the destruction of a symbolically significant structure. (Coincidentally, al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem caught fire on the same day.)
Such landmarks are always at risk, but Notre Dame’s destruction heightens the risk of attacks elsewhere. Attacks on our great symbols trigger the most violent responses; that’s why terrorists, who know us better than we know them, strike there. The World Trade Center attacks brought fear, expanded state powers, war and, eventually, President Donald Trump to the White House. Our response made matters worse and advanced the terrorists’ cause.
Last year my wife and I visited the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. died. It is now the National Civil Rights Museum, but to enter it you must undergo a security check. We chose not to. Such anxious security measures may soon increase around every conceivable cultural icon — the Louvre, the British Museum, the Parthenon, the Lincoln Memorial. We will all be less free, and less connected to our own history — if that happens.
Notre Dame does offer one gleam of light among its ashes. It was conceived almost a millennium ago among people inspired by a story already a millennium old. They understood how well that story could be retold in art and architecture, in creating a small space that would open the universe to those who entered it.
To create their vision, evoked by the vision of Christianity, they learned the strength and weakness and beauty of stone under stress, the impact of light through stained glass on the brain, and they realized that to express what they had learned, and to teach it to their descendants, would be a task of centuries.
They took on that task.
Shocked by the loss of centuries’ work in a few hours, we face the same challenge as the designers and builders and artists who worked over generations. Could we emulate their imagination and their courage, their willingness to create something beautiful they would never live to see?
Rebuilding Notre Dame itself would be a relatively trivial task; much of it survives, and we could use modern technology, even 3-D printing, to restore much of what’s lost. Tourists would flock to see the ruins, and the work in progress, and the glossy, better-than-ever restoration.
But could we also recognize that we have set our world itself on fire, and must now rebuild it as well? We have taken for granted the forests, the seas, the wilderness that made us, as we’ve taken Notre Dame for granted.
We could choose to recognize this summer’s wildfires as the destruction of a far greater cathedral than Notre Dame.
Or we could wait for the storm to come to us as it came to the town of Macondo.